(Feature photo by apolonn)
Reading a literary short story is often like reading a mystery. The only difference is that in every mystery, all the answers are revealed at the end, while in literary fiction, the reader is often left to resolve the mystery (or meaning) to the story by himself.
Oftentimes, this leaves literary fiction open ended. It just drops off the reader into an unresolved chasm and says, “What do you make of this, oh reader?”
Please understand that I’m not a believer in “meaning is derived by the reader.” In other words, when reading a story, you can’t just choose to believe whatever you want in the story’s meaning if those conclusions are inconsistent with the story’s content. Meaning is derived from the work itself. It is merely discovered and brought to light by the reader. There is such a thing as right or wrong, but it is also possible to have multiple right answers if the author so chooses.
In my experience of readers’ reviews of my collection, AMIDST TRAFFIC, this has been their biggest complaint: They become frustrated when the story’s meaning is not revealed to them at the end. Many of my stories are left open ended, putting the burden on the reader to figure out the answer.
This is where the difference lies between literary fiction and a mystery.
The key to solving a mystery novel, for example, is simply reading to the end. The bad guy reveals his plot. The hero saves the day at the last minute. All the loose ends are tied into tidy bows. A gift is presented to the reader as a gratifying reward.
In literary fiction, the reward lies in a careful reading of the story itself. The reader himself is the mystery solver, and he must uncover the hidden meaning behind each metaphor by himself. Much is implied. Much is hung by a string of ambiguity. This is meant to create uncertainty, heighten conflict. This helps readers become better readers. Better thinkers.
In order to help you through this process, please first read my short story, “Three Straws” so as not to spoil anything for you. If you have my collection, you have access to it already.
PLEASE BEWARE, STORY SPOILERS AHEAD.
In “Three Straws” (my collection’s first story), the reader is left with an image of Eli, the story’s “hero” cutting up a drinking straw with a pair of scissors. Then he cuts a second. Then a third. Then he throws a box of them into the trash. He’s a short-order cook at a diner. After he cuts the straws, he finishes cooking the last meal of the night, and walks out. He quits his job.
The entire story, up until now, had revolved around Eli’s obsession with digging a hole in his back yard in order to help him sleep through the night due to nightmares and insomnia. Then, one day at the diner he meets Charles, an elderly man who orders a coffee and always asks for three straws before paying his bill and leaving.
The mystery begins. Why does Charles need the straws? What is he doing with them?
The answer to this is never revealed to the reader until he reads another story in the series, “Clouds in the Water.” But the point is not discovering what Charles wants with the straws (he hints at the fact that he’s building something with them). The point of the story is that Eli is trapped in an obsessive behavior of digging and suddenly finds new hope (and a new obsession) in Charles. They share an invisible bond.
The story is also highly metaphorical, making several references to Christ on the cross, escape from sin and works-based salvation. The point of the story, the whole meaning behind it, is that Eli continues to put his trust in the wrong thing. First he places his trust in his digging, only to discover that the process is wearing his body down. Then he shifts his obsession to Charles. He must know what Charles is doing with all those straws. But we never find out. So the reader feels cheated. And yet the answer lies right in front of him, right in the final paragraph.
The story finishes with a hint (mysteries are full of meaningful hints, or “clues” as detectives prefer). The hint reveals that Eli will go home and rip apart his father’s journals. If you’ve read the story, you’ll remember the journals were the original cause of his nightmares. So the story’s final paragraphs tell the reader that Eli will quit his miserable job, rip apart the journals, let the pages fall into the hole and dumping the dirt back in.
He has just saved himself from the digging. He has decided to bury his past.
It is later, in another story in the collection titled, “Black Coats at the Cheyenne Diner” that we discover Eli’s life had literally been saved when he decided to walk out of the diner that night.
All of the stories are connected this way.
But the point here is to help alleviate readers’ frustrations. When a story leaves you hanging, don’t get angry. Don’t retaliate with defiance. Use this opportunity as a challenge. Ask yourself, “Why would the author do this?” Trust me. No author writes (I hope) stories to torture his readers. At least I don’t. I write to engage and to challenge readers.
If that means you have to go back and look over the “evidence” again to solve your mystery, do so. It will be worth it.
I’ve often thought about writing a series of blog posts to help readers solve the meaning of my stories. I’ve already given away one of them, and I may do so again upon request. But hopefully this has helped you remember that reading good literary fiction is about making connections, critical thinking, enjoying the prose and a pursuit of truth.
What about you?
Are there any other stories in my collection that have frustrated and wish the meaning was revealed to you?